Sunday, June 29, 2014

Representing ethnographic ambiguity in fiction

Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, Maine, 2011.
    It’s become a commonplace to speak about the truth of fiction, which is to say that fiction does better in representing experience than verifiable fact. As a blogger wrote recently for the Paris Review, “The truth of fiction allows the reader not only to believe that the story has happened to the narrator, but to believe that it is happening to himself as well.” I was reminded of this when asked about why, in response to an invitation to write a piece on an assigned subject for a journal that publishes scholarly essays, I submitted a short work of fiction.
    The original invitation came to write an essay for a special issue of a journal devoted to scholarship on music and culture. The issue's theme was to be “Connecting with Communities.” My initial response was to say no. In my reply I mentioned five published essays and one keynote address, from 1985 until now, in which I’d pontificated on how and why we scholars should be connecting and collaborating with musical communities, not just studying them. “So,” I concluded, “I feel as if I've already had many opportunities to present on this subject, and that the world doesn't need to hear anything more from me on it, at least not in another essay. I thank you for thinking of me, and wish you well with the special issue.”
    The editor wasn’t done with me yet. “I wonder,” she kindly wrote back, “if you would consider another form of contribution to this special issue. . . Might there be some creative way you might be interested in sharing your ideas with us in relation to the context of the issue? Especially as we seek to integrate innovative ways of conducting research / creating and sharing knowledge.”
    "Creative way?" I’m not sure if she was aware that years ago I'd tried my hand at fiction before a scholarly audience and, given this leeway, might try again. At any rate, when I submitted a short story, she wrote to ask me to share my thoughts about why fiction? and to say that these thoughts could accompany the story.
    Again, my first reaction was to say no, that the story I submitted should stand or fall on its own. But when I’d presented a piece of fiction to a scholarly audience before, I realized that even if I didn’t want to offer an explanation, the audience deserved one. I hadn’t done it then, but decided to try to do it now. The editor interviewed me and we considered it within the context of multidisciplinarity or, with apologies to Wallace Stevens, the advantages of more than one way of looking at a blackbird.
    We’ve been living, for the past few decades, in a time when in certain circles it is difficult to maintain a stance of scholarly objectivity, a time when the world seems to have dissolved into competing narratives, ways of representing people and things, ways of making sense of experience, ways of telling a truth. We even hear this from media talking heads, usually in the pejorative sense, as “so-and-so’s narrative” of reality. In the US, the Republicans have their narratives, and the Democrats theirs; Fox News has its narrative, MSNBC a different one.
    The difference between these narratives and fiction is, of course, that fiction does not pretend to describe something real. It may be true, but it can't be real in the sense that it corresponds directly to something that happened in the factual world, even if it is derived from real events. Citizen Kane is a fiction based on truths in the life of William Randolph Hearst, but it is not real. You could not find a real Charles Foster Kane, living or dead, even though Hearst, upon release of the film, prohibited its mention in any of his newspapers. And needless to say, most fiction is more made-up than that.
    A scholarly essay persuades by being true to facts, ideas, and logic; but fiction seeks assent in the reader’s experience, real or imagined. It may persuade, but it does not seek to do so. It offers the reader (and the writer) a different advantage: an opportunity to imagine, feel and, perhaps, resolve some of the ambiguities inherent in experience.
    Or not resolve them. I think that fiction writing offers the scholar a chance to explore feelings and understandings, sometimes contradictory ones, and hold them in a state of suspension, a liminal state on both sides of a threshold. Let me offer an example from the first piece of fiction I read before a scholarly audience. It was in 1979, at the New England chapter meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. I derived this fiction from events and experiences at a large folk festival some years earlier. A blues singer, Big Joe Williams, refused to perform blues on the porch of a building constructed especially for this festival. The building looked like a country church and served mainly to present religious music. Of course, it wasn’t a church; but it looked like one, and religious music had been and would be presented there. For blues singers of Big Joe’s generation, it was a sacrilege to sing blues in church, so he refused.
    It happened that I was employed by this festival as a presenter, someone who interprets the performers for the audience, and also, at times, serves as a companion for them. I’d had some experience with blues musicians—had even performed for a couple of years in a blues band, and had written my PhD dissertation on blues—so I was assigned to hang out with and present Big Joe. But he wouldn’t be presented on that church stage. I explained the situation to a high official at the festival, suggesting that we simply move Big Joe to a different stage. But it turned out that logistics wouldn’t permit it, and I was instead directed to persuade him to perform. “It’s not a real church, after all,” I was told. “It’s only a building made to look like one. Just make sure he understands the difference.”
    Impossible. For Big Joe, it was a real church. Real enough, anyway: the performance of gospel music inside had consecrated it as such. I was stuck in the middle and could comprehend both viewpoints, even though I was sympathetic to Big Joe and upset with the festival official who should, I thought, have moved heaven and earth—and said so to Big Joe, who that night changed his mind and performed on that church porch the next day anyway. And now I’ve just explained the liminality of this experience, for Big Joe and for me as well. But 35 years ago I decided to represent it, indirectly, and for that scholarly audience, in a piece of fiction, a murder mystery narrated not by me or even a stand-in, but by a hard-boiled detective--so that the scholars might experience it vicariously themselves and, if I were successful, assent to that liminal position and connect it with their own liminal experiences.
    I’m not sure if the story that I submitted to this journal will be as effective. It’s much more a made-up product of my imagination than the story I wrote about the festival. It’s about a bird watcher—but then I don’t want to explain it or try to interpret it here, now. We’ll see if it can be contextualized in that special issue. As faithful readers of this blog will have guessed, it has to do with bird song, with presence, and with co-presence; and in more ways than one it’s about connecting with communities. I think I'll leave it there, for now.